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‘Breaking through’ in music is harder than breaking into a banker’s bonus

(January 18, 2013)

That’s possibly true, although the morphing of methods in the music industry has modified that statement somewhat. Aside from being good at your art and building a following through gigs and album releases, passing time and technology have helped. Both have demonstrated the immediacy of music products delivered through a host of televised ‘talent’ shows, superior marketing or the creation of viral online ‘sensation’. The difficulty is in defining what is meant by ‘breaking through’ and how to define any subsequent success. The problem is also manifestly greater for what is often appropriately called niche music, which is precisely where folk sits.

A considerable number of folkies may baulk at the thought of folk being niche music but when compared to marketing-hyped, celebrity-spawned pop, folk is niche music. That niche may well have the legs on its competitors when it comes to the longevity of its songs and artists, but in selling-power it’s a long way behind the break-through volumes enjoyed by the popular pap that’s constantly disgorged by broadcast media and often referred to as music.

So for folk artists, even in the widest categorisation of folk, to ‘break through’ can seem impossible. Before progressing, consider for a moment the perception of success defined in the phrase ‘breaking through’. Does it mean you fly around the world in a private jet? Does it mean unlimited media attention and the (albeit fleeting) adulation of millions?  Does it mean Wembley Stadium-sized sell out concerts? Does it mean nailing yet one more platinum album to the wall? Or does it mean making your music and supporting yourself and your family on the proceeds instead of having a day-job too?

Some of the positive answers to those questions remain for the average folk musician in the realms of fantasy. Yes, I too can list a few folk artists that rate high levels of (primarily folk-focused) media attention. There have been one or two folk artists that could fill the Albert Hall and yes some support themselves through gigs and album sales but - and it’s a big but - they are a tiny minority. To put it into perspective, not one of them would, if ranked against a marketing-hyped celebrity band or artist, generate anything like the recognition of a so-called successful ‘pop star’, make sack loads of money touring the world and sell albums all over the planet. Equally, few are starving artists, scraping an existence in a lonely garret and suffering for their art. Although it is true that a great many do struggle for their art, make little enough money from their talents and hold down a ‘day-job’ (often nothing to do with music) to keep body and soul together. However, it is not obligatory for a folk artist to have the hard, street-roaming, destitute life nor is it necessary for them to be a railcar-riding bum. Those that do so either choose that lifestyle or cannot avoid it - but it is not compulsory.

So why is it hard to break into the upper reaches of folk music?

If you define ‘breaking through’ in folk music terms as writing your own songs, singing in clubs of various sizes and releasing your own albums then ‘breaking through’ is not that hard to achieve. Assuming of course that you’re any good at what you do. There is, as discussed previously in these columns, a lot of distinctly below average music slopping around the folk world. Lots of it gets sent to us. Forget that for the moment and assume you are good at your art, not deluding yourself and others, then you can ‘break through’. Technology makes recording an album pretty easy. And the global reach of the inter-web and the immediacy it allows, enables most to spread their musical word worldwide.

The advantages of YouTube, iTunes and Facebook enjoyed by artists are relatively modern avenues to reach an audience. For the young reading this I have to tell you there was a time when they simply didn’t exist. The only way for people to hear your music was at a folk club or a live music-friendly pub, the only way to record your music (in any half-decent format) was in a studio. And the only way to distribute that music was through convincing the suits at a record label to give you a chance.

So aside from the perception of stardom what does ‘breaking through’ in folk equate to? Is it achieving recognition that has producers and distributors beating a path to your door? Does it mean established, recognised musicians want to play on your next release? And does it mean festival and event organisers come looking for you – rather than having to grind away getting floor spots until people finally recognise you? It can mean all that and more but usually it means finding your place in the niche making it yours and assuming the mantle of professional musician even though you may do ‘other things’ at the same time.

Fighting for a floor spot

Let’s go back to ‘singing in clubs’ and getting on that elusive gigging circuit. Few artists survive on album sales alone. They have to keep touring. However, for many folk artists the hard part is finding a live outlet. It’s easy for venues and promoters to pull in an audience with a ‘big’ name. However, long ago and faraway most of those ‘names’ were nothing more than struggling artists waiting for someone to take a punt on them. So why doesn’t that happen so much these days? Is it costs? Is it enterprise?

Why do so many artists have to fight for a one-song-spot on a Singers’ Night when they deserve far more? One problem is the reticence for clubs, events, distributors and producers to take a risk. Why book an unknown and hope when you can book a name and be certain? Those ‘names’ referred to earlier reached that status in the first place by working as ‘nobodies’ before they started filling venues and selling albums. They worked themselves out of the gap between the top and the bottom, but now that seems so much harder to achieve.

The gap between the folk artists that make it and those that never will is filled with a huge array of artists that spread themselves across the thinnest and widest definitions of folk. They are the backbone or grass roots (hate that phrase) of folk. And just occasionally a few filter to the top, rightly so and break through (although the private jet may remain a pipe dream). For the lucky few finding a producer, studio and label interested and willing to help with the next album is recognition enough. An airplay or two on regional or (nothing short of Nirvana) national radio is wonderful and achieving enough presence that your fellow musicians want to work with you is high praise indeed.

‘We only write about the artists you already know’

Another problem facing the folk artists living and working in said ‘gap’ is the major music press (published, broadcast or online). Broadly speaking, outside specialist focused folk sources the music media gives not one jot about the vast majority of artists that live in the ‘gap’. Once again that’s the gap between huge international success (the minority) and the absolutely appalling (the other minority). This gap is filled with artists that simply do not feature in the media’s thought processes.

This is a huge swathe of professional musicians that manage to feed themselves, their families and pay the mortgage by gigging and recording. They may not be millionaires but they’re making a living. Before I’m corrected, I know that many also teach their chosen instrument, write about their art and run studios as part of their working life in addition to gigging and recording, but they’re not building society managers by day and musicians by night.

One reason the dwellers in the gap remain ignored is the media cannot be bothered to report on anything other than those that have made it or those that have just won ‘such and such’ award.  Much of the media focus remains on success or those about to attain success, rather than those artists working quietly in the ‘gap’ - those artists that in effect constitute the backbone of music. And before there’s a rush of disagreement, try to find more than a handful of published, broadcast or online media not folk-focused, that are prepared to report on those artists. Not easy is it?

The rise of the ‘cottage’ recording

One positive in the way the music industry is morphing is the increase in the number of independent labels, distributors and producers willing to work with those that do not live on the mountain-top of success. There are more cottage-industry level studios and a proliferation of ‘hand-made’ albums, launched in limited editions by selective distributors. The result is an increasing number of folk albums that owe their existence to those people and that process.

These days it is not cost-prohibitive to generate a quality demo and circulate it to the world at large. And for many it’s not impossible to get people that matter to listen to your work. Of course it still requires effort and obstinacy but what doesn’t? The upside is that the communication flows both ways. Not only can you send your music across the planet but its increasingly easy to find media might be interested in your demo – especially if you’re focused on media that focus on folk. These people will usually accept mp3 demos as a taster even if they ask for a CD to produce a quality review.

... and where to from here?

Folk grew out of isolated villages and travelling musicians taking their music far and wide with their aural tradition. The spread extended through the folksong collector and the numerous revivals. The move then went to the world of home studio, computers, mobile devices and digital distribution. Folk has moved from word-of-mouth transference of artist’s reputations through pubs and clubs, papers and magazines to the worldwide web and in doing so has spread its essence and influences from here to wherever. All we have to do now is help, where we can, ensure that the ‘break through’ point remains open to all.

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